The Coronavirus Crisis has Exposed a Huge Digital Divide in our Society

The Covid-19 pandemic has had an extraordinary impact on all of our lives. Many will look back at 2020 as a year beset by grief and loss, fear and insecurity.

At the same time we have witnessed a great upsurge of willingness to volunteer and to look out for each other. In my own constituency of Darlington, I’ve been overwhelmed by the willingness of people to come forward, giving their time to help collect food and prescriptions for those who are shielding and sewing scrubs for our local hospital.

It has been a challenging and isolating time for all of us. For those who were already isolated or socially excluded, it has been harder still. So the All Party Parliamentary Group on Social Integration, of which I am a member, has conducted an inquiry into social connection in the Covid-19 crisis, looking in particular at efforts to reach isolated groups. Its initial report is published today.

We were impressed by the energy and innovation with which charities, local authorities, businesses and others have addressed this challenge. Much of that innovation – to maintain connection at a time of physical distancing ­– has, of course, been online.

Yet while some of us are Skyping relatives and connecting with neighbours on WhatsApp groups, there are many who cannot access these digital platforms.

Some people cannot afford the necessary equipment, like a laptop or smartphone, or the mobile data or wifi required to get online. Others lack the skills to effectively navigate the online world.

While older people are less likely to be online, digital exclusion affects a much wider group: people living on low or no income, homeless people and those with a refugee or asylum-seeking background can all struggle to access the internet – at a time when it is so important to our health and wellbeing.

Digital exclusion was a serious issue before the pandemic, affecting people who were at greater risk of social exclusion too. 

What the coronavirus crisis has done is to raise the stakes significantly – because so many vital services and pieces of important information are now mainly available only online. 

There’s a risk that it could make some people even more isolated at a time when technology is making others are feeling more connected than before.

Up to a fifth of adults lack the basic digital skills needed to get around online.

There is much good practice to be emulated.

Some excellent schemes are recycling donated laptops and phones for distribution to those who need them.

But it’s not enough just giving people equipment and leaving them to get on with it.

Up to a fifth of adults lack the basic digital skills needed to get around online. To address that, you need training – and it has been encouraging to see that people have stepped up.

‘Digital Champion’ schemes have been operated by some voluntary sector organisations, training up volunteers who then help people to develop the basic digital skills they need to access information, services and videoconferencing with family. 

This is often happening over the phone, so someone can literally be talked through the process of signing up to, say, Zoom or Skype, so they can see their family for the first time in weeks.

The APPG’s report recommends that such schemes are expanded – and that some of the thousands of new NHS Volunteers, if they have the right skills, and with the right training, could be deployed as Digital Champions. 

The Covid-19 crisis has exposed a huge digital divide in this country.

When the current crisis period ends it is essential that we do level up and enable opportunity throughout the country, with a long-term commitment from the Government, educational institutions, employers and civil society to increase digital inclusion.

- Originally published in The House Magazine -